“The Church is conservative because it opposes abortion and values the lives of the unborn. The Church also believes in personal responsibility, which is a conservative value. The Church believes in the existence of objective truth and rejects the notion of relativism.”
“The Church is liberal because it advocates for the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, and the worker. The Church believes in personal freedom from things such as slavery and coercion. The Church teaches us to love our neighbor.”
The two quotes above represent two differing perspectives of the Catholic Church and her doctrine. A person’s perspective of the Church is usually shaped and determined by how they identify themselves politically and ideologically. A conservative will view the Church through a conservative lens and a liberal will view the Church through a liberal one. The problem with seeing the Church through an ideological lens, or any type of lens for that matter, is that some aspects of her teaching will be overemphasized while other aspects are ignored. A conservative might focus more on the Church’s teaching against abortion and contraception while ignoring her teaching on collective responsibility to provide justice for the poor and needy or her teaching regarding the fundamental option for the poor. A liberal might focus more on the Church’s teaching to care for the poor while ignoring the Church’s teaching on abortion.
In saying this, I realize that this is an oversimplification of what individual conservatives or liberals might think about the Church and her teaching. Reality is often more complicated, and people cannot be conveniently categorized in boxes. I’m simply generalizing these differing perspectives for the sake of highlighting an important fundamental point about the Church. The fact is that the teaching of the Catholic Church does not fit perfectly within any worldly ideology, whether conservative or liberal, left wing or right wing, capitalist or socialist, or any other artificial category. The teaching of the Church cannot be confined to any limited set of merely human ideals. There are certain aspects of Church teaching that will appeal to people of one ideological alignment while other aspects appeal to another. It is for this reason that the Church, especially Pope Francis, challenges us all to “think outside of the box,” that is, to recognize the fact that reality is broader and more complex than our own limited perspectives and opinions. After all, the teaching of the Church is about a God who is unlimited, who cannot be reduced to a single person’s perspective or ideology. If her teaching could be reduced in such a way, then that person would be God. God always transcends our own limited ideas about Him. It requires humility to admit that not one of us understands God completely and entirely. Any person who reduces God to their own ideas of God risks putting an idol in place of the one, true God and worshiping it.
The fact is that the teaching of the Catholic Church does not fit perfectly within any worldly ideology, whether conservative or liberal, left wing or right wing, capitalist or socialist, or any other artificial category. The teaching of the Church cannot be confined to any limited set of merely human ideals.
It is safe to say that no recent pope has addressed the issue of ideology with more regularity than Pope Francis. A simple word search of several of the Holy Father’s letters reveals that some variation of the word “ideology” appears nearly 40 times. Considering the elevated political tension and rivalry that exists in various countries around the world, including the United States, one can readily understand why Pope Francis has chosen to address this issue so extensively. Ideology is one of the largest contributing factors to fear, disunity, division, public unrest, distrust, hatred, and lack of genuine dialogue. According to the New Oxford Dictionary, the definition of “ideology” is “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy – the ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.” While it is natural for people to have differing ideas and ideals concerning ecclesial, economic, or political theory and policy, the problem is that too many people become so entrenched in their own ideas that they refuse to listen to people with differing ideas, views, and perspectives. Adhering to radically ideological thinking fosters an unwillingness to listen to others. This lack of listening and dialogue only increases fear, animosity, and hatred of others and eventually leads to violence if left unchecked. Pope Francis has warned the Church time and again to beware of ideologies and their devastating effect on dialogue. All of us need to learn to listen to one another and to listen together to the Holy Spirit and discern the Spirit’s action in our lives and in the life of the Church. In an interview Pope Francis gave in September 2023, the Holy Father said, “Within the Church there are often ideologies, which separate the Church from the life that comes from the root and goes upwards. They separate the Church from the influence of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a person who adheres to ideological thinking hinders his/her own ability to be enlightened and guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, which stunts that person’s spiritual growth.
For this reason, it is crucial for Catholics to realize that the Church cannot be confined to our own limited ideological alignments or identities. The doctrine of the Church will always escape the confines of our ideological boxes. The Church does not fully align with conservatives, liberals, leftists, people on the far right, capitalists, socialists, or any other limited set of ideas. The proof is in the pudding, that is, in the name “Catholic Church.” The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word meaning “universal.” It suggests that the Church is not an ideological monolith consisting of people who only think one way or adhere to one set of ideas. The Catholic Church is comprised of many kinds of people from varying backgrounds and who have different ideas to bring to the table. Our catholicity is not found in blanket uniformity, but in a unified diversity. As Catholics, we should be willing to listen to other people who have ideas that differ from our own and establish a bond of trust with them. We may not agree with others on everything, but we can at least be united by our common bond of love and communion with Christ and the Church.
Again, the problem with having a rigid ideological mindset is that it will always lead to ignoring, overlooking, and even omitting those aspects of doctrine that are either inconvenient or irreconcilable with its own ideas. Rather than listening with an open mind to people with differing perspectives, ideologues tend to gravitate towards like-minded people who will only confirm their own biases, which keeps them trapped in their own ideological echo chamber. The challenge that our Holy Father has issued to us in our own time is to learn to think outside of our ideological boxes and our short-sighted political alignments. A conservative might be fixated on the Church’s teaching against abortion whereas a liberal is more focused on providing for the material needs of those children who are already born. The fact is that the Church upholds the inherent dignity and value of both the child who is unborn and the one who is born and that they both have a right to gain access to everything needed for their sustenance and development. The challenge of Catholic teaching is not only to recognize the dignity of the child in the womb, but the basic God-given dignity of every human life from conception to natural death. We do not need to prioritize certain groups of needy people over others; rather, we should seek justice and provide for the wellbeing of all groups of people. We should be just as concerned for the life of the homeless person, the orphan, the widow, the person who lives in a poorer country, and the immigrant as we should about the unborn child. When we adhere stubbornly to an ideology without listening to others, we overlook this fundamental fact about human dignity, that all human lives are precious and are deserving of protection and access to basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and health care. Catholics are called to give a unified witness to the fullness of the truth, not merely to those aspects of the truth that are expedient for us while ignoring other aspects.
We should listen to our Holy Father Pope Francis who encourages us to engage in respectful, fruitful dialogue, especially with those who have differing views from our own. Dialogue does not require us to sacrifice our core beliefs, principles, and values, but to simply listen to other people and learn from them, just as they might hopefully listen to us and learn from us. It is in this spirit of dialogue that we can create cooperation among varying groups of people and accomplish many good things for the Church and for the world. Pope Francis is not the only person who advocates for dialogue. I am inspired by the example of Daryl Davis, a black musician who successfully helped a Ku Klux Klan leader to leave the Klan. He did this not by hating his enemy or hurling insults at him, but by sitting down and listening to him, by dialoguing with him. In one talk, Daryl advises his audience, saying: “Take the time to sit down and talk with your adversaries. You’ll learn something; they’ll learn something. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting – they’re talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So, keep the conversation going.” If we learn to listen to others and engage in fruitful dialogue with them, then we will become more effective participants in the mission of evangelization and help to bring the love and peace of Christ into a world that desperately needs it.
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA